Nighttime tour of cemetery resurrects memories of Berks County residents
A nighttime tour of Aulenbach's Cemetery conjures up tales of the lives of the departed.
On a bone-chilling night, as darkness descends upon Mount Penn, a procession quietly makes its way down a winding path in Aulenbach's Cemetery.
Their lanterns piercing the blackness, pilgrims on the Aulenbach's Cemetery Lantern Tour cautiously venture into the silent world of the dead.
"There's something about cemeteries," confesses Miller of Bernville, one of a dozen on the tour Saturday. "They harbor a lot of untold stories."
Indeed, the dead of Aulenbach's Cemetery jealously guard their secrets. Yet, in a sense, they speak
The cemetery's historian, Stief has spent years researching the lives of those who occupy the 156-year-old graveyard covering 34 acres on a hillside where Reading meets Mount Penn.
Scouring history books, cemetery records and old newspapers, Stief has resurrected memories silenced by time.
The tales from the crypts, some tragic and others joyful, offer a glimpse into the lives and times of eras past.
"The tales of the tombstones are not spoken for the ears, but are whispered softly to the soul," Stief says. "From the dead, you learn the wonder of life."
On the lantern tour, the cemetery's first after-dark excursion, the entourage casts eerie silhouettes against the wintry sky.
Tips on the branches of barren trees reach out like spindly fingers, framed by the eerie red glow of the Pagoda atop Mount Penn.
Participants find peace, though, rather than fright amid the stillness of the graveyard.
"You wonder what they did in life, what they went through and how they died," Stief, the cemetery superintendent, offers glimpses into the lives of selected cemetery residents.
"Here's Hans Wilkens," she declares, stopping in front of an inauspicious stone.
Few have heard of Wilkens, but he was the dean of Berks County botanists for more than 50 years.
Wilkens, a machinist by trade, collected 10,000 specimens of plant life native to the region. The collection was split between the Reading Public Museum and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences when he died at age 95 in 1993.
Death, in some respects, isn't all that different from life. While some are buried beneath granite statues and impressive obelisks, others haven't even a tombstone as testament to their lives.
Joel Fegley is buried in Aulenbach, but without a marker. His memory lives only in the cemetery's 3-by-5 file cards and old newspaper clippings.
At 8 p.m. on Feb. 1, 1882, Fegley died after being run over by a horse-drawn sleigh careening down Perkiomen Avenue near the cemetery.
The 58-year-old laborer was dragged for 30 yards beneath the sleigh and died of a broken neck, according to a coroner's inquest. The sleigh's driver, a Birdsboro man, was charged with reckless driving.
Charles Aulenbach founded the cemetery to fulfill a promise to his father, Andreas, who asked to be buried beneath a chestnut tree on the family farm.
Andreas, who fought in the War of 1812, was the first person buried in Aulenbach's Cemetery after he died in 1848. He lies there still, surrounded by Charles and 20 descendants in a section called the Aulenbach Reserve.
The cemetery, incorporated in 1853, is a mecca for veterans of the nation's wars.
Some 1,243 veterans, including 522 who served during the Civil War, are buried inside the cemetery walls.
William Hoffmaster, a Union soldier who had been wounded and taken prisoner, apparently was sent home to die. He passed a week after returning to Reading in 1862.
Yet, 147 years later, Hoffmaster is immortalized under a tombstone adorned with a solitary soldier carrying an American flag.
Ida and Stockton Snyder, who have been side by side for 102 years, lived charitable lives but died tragic deaths.
In May 1907, after attending a Shriner's convention, the Snyders and 15 others from Berks perished when their train wrecked and burned near Honda, Calif.
Some 24,000 people lined up in Reading as the funeral train, draped in black, brought the victims home, the Reading Eagle reported. The old Trinity Lutheran Church bell sounded 17 taps as the sorrowful procession of four floats moved toward funeral homes on Sixth Street.
"People were drawn to see the train as it tracked across the country," Stief says, quoting news reports. "People were so taken by the tragedy, they donated food and flowers at each of the stops."
old Trinity Lutheran Church ,
and AULENBACHER Cemetery.